Thursday, March 22, 2007

Where's my Senator: Part III (dateline -- Cynicism, MT)

Our thanks to 4&20 Blackbirds for giving a well-stated response to Where's my Senator?: Part II, and for soliciting a thoughtful and more detailed response from the Sunlight Foundation, a driving force behind the move to publish the schedules of elected officials.

After calling us cynical, and correctly pointing out that we had invited readers to "call us cynical," it is stated by 4&20 that Montana Headlines "fails to admit that the Sunlight Foundation's project is, well, a good thing." Hm. Well, that is probably true, and so here we go: it is a good thing.

It is a good thing, that is, when one keeps in mind just what it is and what its limitations are. Would we rather that C-Span coverage of the U.S. Congress (the equivalent example that we used) disappear, or would we say that it isn't "a good thing?" No, because there are certainly things that can be learned from that coverage -- they are just very limited, and there is much potential for misleading theatrics and irrelevant information.

Nisha Thompson uses the example that Rep. Dan Burton missed 19 votes because of golfing in the Bob Hope Classic, and that this had been going on for years without any of his constituents knowing it. This kind of information is hardly without value, and as the link points out, many conservative groups are also attentive to the issue of absentee Congressmen.

Montana Headlines recalls, for instance, that there is a great advantage for Senators with Presidential ambitions to miss as many votes as possible (can anyone say John Edwards?) So we suppose it's not a bad thing to have the opportunity for constituents to remind legislators of their duties in Washington. It's not fair to a hard-working Senator like Hillary Clinton (no, we're not being facetious) that she has a lot more votes to answer for than does the "populist" opponent to her left.

It was also pointed out that "a constituent can go online and see that Jon Tester is meeting with some Montana coal lobby and call his office to ask what happened at that meeting..." In our last post, we pointed out that Tester's office had posted that he was on the floor of the Senate on the evening of March 5th when according to other accounts, he was hob-nobbing in New York City that evening. We're curious: did any of the people who are ardent advocates of the importance of Jon Tester's schedule call Tester's office to ask where he was that evening? Did they ask who paid for the trip, who attended the event, whether fundraising went on, whether there were private meetings with others before or after that function in New York, and why it wasn't on the schedule?

We didn't, mainly because we aren't numbered amongst the ardent advocates of the importance of Sen. Tester's posted schedule. That piece of information simply confirmed us in our view of the limited value of the posted schedule and wasn't particularly surprising. We imagine that few, if any, strong Tester supporters made that phone call, mainly because they trust Sen. Tester's motives and truthfulness, assume that there is an innocent explanation, and besides he publishes more of his schedule than everyone else put together -- no need to bug the Senator. There are others who are not as trusting of Sen. Tester (that's why we voted for Burns in spite of the obvious shortcomings), but who probably doubted the value of playing 20 questions with Tester's staff over this matter -- so, no point in bugging the Senator.

Finally, it was implied that Montana Headlines stated that "more information creates more corruption." Someone may have said that, but it isn't to be found in our post. What we stated was the obvious fact that there are always going to be conversations, meetings, and discussions that aren't going to be public knowledge, and publishing a schedule won't change that fact. We don't believe that private meetings are, by definition, evidence of corruption. One can engage in corruption in a non-publicized meeting -- and one can engage in corruption in a meeting that is on a schedule or that is mislabeled.

We stated that a schedule can give a false sense of security -- this isn't a reason not to have one, but it is a reason to understand its limited value as a tool to determine whether a legislator is up to no good. There is nothing wrong with Sen. Tester publishing a schedule, and in fact there are good things about it. Perhaps curious bloggers will start e-mailing or calling the Montanans listed on Tester's schedule as having met with him, and asking them what was said in that meeting. Perhaps the responses to those e-mails and phone enquiries will be posted on the internet, and we will all be enlightened.

We do question whether the Tester schedule is such a qualitative break-through in transparency that it justifies its rock-star treatment in the liberal blogophere. Maybe it does -- we'll see.

Nisha Thompson states that "the goal was never to create a gotcha mentality but to start a conversation on how people should be interacting with their elected officials." We're glad to hear that, and we would agree that such a conversation is not without merit. Part of the point of our last post was that we Montanans already have very good access to our elected officials -- it can always be improved, though, and if publishing schedules makes an improvement, then good.

What drew our initial response was how we perceived the happenings in the Montana blogosphere. It has looked like hammering on Rep. Rehberg in what can only be described as a "gotcha" manner, then extrapolating from that to proclaim: "see, he's dishonest." In light of the rhetoric in which all of this has been encased, it is not particularly surprising that Rehberg's offices have received this as harassment to be brushed off, rather than as a sincere desire for civil conversation that should gladly be engaged.


Nisha Thompson said...

The Punch Clock Campaign never said schedules would eliminate corruption. They will let citizens engage and communicate better with their elected officials. The goal is to find out what they do as elected officials, and to encourage the habit of disclosure. The idea is that better management creates better Members of Congress by creating a situation where they have to keep their constituents in mind all the time not just during the election season. Montana might have the most access to them but that doesn’t mean you know what they do in Washington and why they do it. Would the New York event have meant much to you if you didn’t have Tester’s schedule to compare it with? Now that you do, you can ask why he was there and what purpose it served. This is about creating communication between citizens and the Senator’s office, where before there wasn’t.

You Said “We stated that a schedule can give a false sense of security -- this isn't a reason not to have one, but it is a reason to understand its limited value as a tool to determine whether a legislator is up to no good.”

Will schedules give people a false sense of security? The question I ask is; Has C-Span and financial disclosure forms lead to more oversight or less? When C-Span started it showed that Members of Congress are in fact regular people; who aren’t the smartest or the best speakers. Even though the speeches are staged the fact of the matter is that they are clearly staged. Citizens now know that the House Floor is not where work is done and can now start looking for where it is. The same way Financial Disclosure forms are tools to understand how money might affect decision making. A schedule is a tool that allows people to see what the process for the decision might be. If there are people who in fact do look to schedules with a sense of security there will also be people who do not.

Montana Headlines said...

We are perhaps going around in circles. Your response on 4&20 BB made it sound like Montana Headlines was saying that schedules would create more corruption, when we weren't maintaining any such thing.

The only reason that the Tester schedule meant anything to us was that Montana Democrats have been unfavorably comparing Rehberg's honesty with that of Sen. Tester based on the level of detail in scheduling information provided.

We fully expect that Sen. Tester, being a Democratic Senator whose win in a red state gave control of the Senate to his party, is going to spend a lot of time being a rock star on the coasts -- the New York City event is part and parcel of that, and is unsurprising whether it was on a schedule or not .

Democrats have been making a big deal out of Sen. Tester's transparency, and yet when a fairly major discrepancy was right in front of them, they ignored it -- and if transparency and honesty were the agenda, they would been all over it. We explained in our post why we ourselves didn't pursue the matter.

If only partisan opponents of a particular politician care enough about the details of a schedule to pursue it, then it is -- at least in this case -- political gotcha. This is quite separate from the intentions of your organization.

A lot more debate and business used to get done on the House and Senate floors before proceedings were televised, from what we understand. It is precisely for that reason that the members of the U.S. Supreme Court -- regardless of ideological bent -- are opposed to having television cameras in their chambers.

We will watch with interest to see what effect the publication of schedules has. Our own admittedly cynical view is that they will join MySpace pages and netroot blogs as yet one more staged tool of media manipulation.

With every such tool, political power will increasingly be wielded not by the honest and prudent, but by those who best know how to manage the imagery of transparency.